Diwali has come and gone. Maryada Purushottam Ram has been welcomed by the citizens of Ayodhya with much fanfare. He and his wife Sita have occupied their rightful place on the throne of the kingdom. But there is no fairytale ending for Sita and no end in sight to her travails.
The 14 years of banwas, the trauma of being abducted by Ravana and taken far away to the isle of Lanka, her steadfast refusal to not be spirited away by Hanuman from the Ashok Vatika where she is being held in captivity but to be honorably rescued by her warrior husband, her first agni pariksha to prove her chastity— all along there has been enough in Sita’s life to test the mettle of any woman. But there is more. She will be sent away to the forest a second time where she will give birth to her twins and live out the remaining of her life till she finds release in the bosom of Mother Earth.
A life so relentlessly full of vicissitudes despite her good birth, good looks and the love of a good man has made her a fit subject of mythology, folklore, and literature. In Urdu, there is nearly as much poetry written on Sita as there is on Ram.
Sita’s Story Is One of Trials, Tribulations and Torment
In the over 300 versions of Ram Kathan in Urdu from the Awadh region alone, there are exquisite invocations from the life story of Ram and Sita; almost all speak in tones of hushed reverence of the pakeezgi (purity) and masumiyat (innocence) of the princess from Mithila for whom even the fragrance of flowers weighed heavy (‘nikhat-e gul ka bojh bhi bhaari’) yet who willingly endured the hardships of exile.
Taking the suffering that Sita endured, after her abduction and then again when her purity was put to the test, Sahir Ludhainvi puts her ordeal at par with the ignominy and injustice of Life:
Zindagi ka naseeb kya kahiye
Ek Sita thii jo sataii gayii
(What can one say of the fate of a Life
It was a Sita who was tormented)
Kaifi Azmi too views Sita’s dilemma in much the same way:
Chand rekhaon mein simaon mein
Zindagi qaid hai Sita ki tarah
(In a few lines and boundaries
Life is imprisoned like Sita)
Urdu Poetry Poignantly Captures Sita’s Sense of Exile
Agha Hashar Kashmiri, the prolific playwright and screenplay writer, known as the Shakespeare of India, wrote an entire play called Sita Banwas, the 14-year exile in the forest written entirely from the point of view of Sita. In fact, the banwas of Ram and Sita has been viewed both in a political and metaphorical sense. There’s Kaifi Azmi’s poignant Doosra Banwas referring to Ram leaving Ayodhya when the domes fell on 6 December 1992. There is also the banwas that is a spiritual exile that falls to the lot of Everyman, the one that Nasir Shahzad alludes to:
Ek kaata Ram ne Sita ke saath
Doosra ban-bas mere naam par
(There was the exile that Ram endured with Sita
The second was the exile he endured in my name)
Like the banwas (also spelt ban-bas), the Urdu poet and creative writer has seized upon Ravan’s abduction of Sita for its allegorical import.
In Qurratulain Hyder’s novella, Sita Haran, Sita Mirchandani, a Hindu refugee from Sindh is traumatised by the forced separation from her homeland. Translated into English as Sita Betrayed, it speaks of the loss of home and family and links the post-partition tragedy of Sita Mirchandani with the travails of Ram’s Sita in exile.
‘Laxman Rekha’ or Line of Control for Women?
Of the several depictions of Sita sighting the beautiful deer, crossing the Lakshman Rekha, going out of the sanctuary of her home to give alms to Ravan disguised as a brahmin and the terrible consequences of her innocence and kindness, one of the most evocative is Munshi Banwari Lal Shola’s long poem, Sita-Haran:
Baahar jo kundli se chaliin to dhoka khaa gayiin
Raavan ke chhal mein hai! Maharani aa gayiin
(Stepping out of the hut she was caught in an entrapment
Woe! The maharani was caught in the deceit of Ravan)
While several poets take a simplistic position of Sita crossing the boundary that demarcates the safe haven of the marital home from the wicked world outside, some poets play on the notion of good vs. evil, such as this verse by Wajid Chughtai:
Kis se poochhun kho gai Sita kahan
Ban ka har saaya hii Raavan ho gaya
(Who shall I ask where Sita has gone
Every shadow in the forest has turned into Ravan)
Or this, by Pratap Somvanshi:
Lakshman-rekha bhi aḳhir kya kar legii
Saare Ravan ghar ke andar nikleinge
(What will the Lakshman-rekha achieve
All the Ravans are found inside the home)
Others take a more sanguine view of Sita’s longing for the golden enticing deer, such as this by Gauhar Hoshiarpuri:
Ishq be-ḳhabar guzre ḳhair-o-shar ke uqdon se
Aarzu ki Sita ko Ram kaun Ravan kaun
(Love is heedless of the mysteries of good and evil
For the longing of Sita, who is Ram and who is Ravan)
Has Hindu Mythology Given Sita Her Rightful Place?
Here’s a woman’s perspective on Sita crossing the line, holding the bowl of alms, signifying her heedless goodness that puts her in danger in Aziz Bano Darab Wafa retelling:
Ab bhi kharhi hai soch mein duubi ujyalon ka daan liye
Aaj bhi rekha paar hai Ravan Sita ko samjhai kaun
(Even today she stands lost in thought holding the alms of light
Even today Ravan is across the line; who can make Sita understand)
Nasir Shahzad refers to the separation of Rama and Sita that creates a sterile, barren emotional landscape:
Ravan ne phir juda kiya Sita ko Ram se
Phir kalpana bujhaii gaii qayaas chhiin kar
(Once again Ravan has separated Sita from Ram
Once again imagination is stifled by snatching speculation)
Giving Sita her rightful place beside Ram and Lakshman as the embodiment of the ‘culture of Hinduism’, Zafar Ali Khan declares:
Naqsh-e tehzeeb-e hunood ab bhi numaaya hain agar
To woh Sita se hain, Lachman se hain aur Ram se hain
(If there are still any visible signs of the culture of Hinduism
Then they are because of Sita, and Lakshman, and Ram)
However, it was left to Bilquis Zafirul Hasan, a modern woman poet to put an end to the valorisation of sabr (patience) that lies at the heart of most depictions of Sita:
Khud pe ye zulm gavara nahiin hoga ham se
Hum to sholon se na guzreinge na Sita samjhein
(I shall not tolerate this cruelty upon myself
I shall not pass through flames; don’t take me for Sita.)
(Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, translator and literary historian. She writes on literature, culture and society. She runs Hindustani Awaaz, an organisation devoted to the popularisation of Urdu literature. She tweets at @RakhshandaJalil. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)